Preserving Jeremy Bentham

You might know Jeremy Bentham as the father of Utilitarianism—once the dominant moral and political view of the Western world. Perhaps you know him as the mentor to John Stuart Mill, himself a proponent of women’s suffrage. You might not be familiar, however, with the eccentric, idiosyncratic details of Bentham’s personal life.

For example, Bentham was terrified of the spectral world. From a young age, his family servants had instilled in him a deep-seated fear of poltergeists such that he could not stand to sleep alone. He always had a servant sleep in the same room with him, lest he suffer nightmares. Likely, his mother’s own pious superstitions did not help young Bentham’s development.

Despite these fears that were [arguably] irrational and unscientific, Bentham became the founder of a philosophy that aimed to be neither. Utilitarianism is, roughly, a doctrine that promotes a non-egotistical hedonism: we ought to promote the pleasures and avoid the pains of society writ large. This aims to be in harmony with our own psychophysiological make up.

One can see how this idea of pleasure promotion and pain avoidance was adopted by Bentham even in practical matters. Aside from having a servant share his bedchambers to ward off nocturnal pains, he applied his Greatest Happiness Principle even at the end of his life

“I now feel that I am dying. Our care must be to minimize the pain. Do not let any of the servants come into the room, and keep away the youths. It will be distressing to them, and they can be of no service. Yet I must not be alone, and you will remain with me, and you only, and then we shall have reduced the pain to the least possible amount.” –The Nation, Dec. 5, 1878

Aside from phasmophobia, Bentham didn’t seem to have many qualms about the afterlife. He wrote into his will that his corpse ought to be dissected and preserved by his physician friend Thomas Southwood Smith. Unfortunately, the mummification of Bentham’s head went awry, and the skin dried up and blackened. Originally, the head was placed on the body until cooler heads prevailed and a wax likeness replaced the grotesque original.

441px-Jeremy_Bentham_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill_detailApocryphal lore surrounding his “auto-icon,” which is still kept on display at University College London, included students of rival Kings College stealing the head for a game of football or the corpse being registered as “present, but not voting” at College Council meetings. There are confirmed instances, though, where the head was allegedly pilfered and where the body was present at various ceremonies throughout the years.

Bentham was greatly influenced by the Enlightenment and the promise of science, which led him to donate his body in such a way that it might promote knowledge. To that effect, he was apparently also quite fashionable: it was discovered in the 1980s that his auto-icon is wearing knitted underwear. Ever the forward thinker, Bentham shunned the common practice of simply tucking one’s shirttails into one’s pants, opting instead for a style most of us take for granted.

Given the varying eccentricities of his life, it is largely unsurprising that contemporary observers look at things like his struggles with romantic interests and proclivity for holing himself up like a self-described hermit and speculate that this brilliant recluse may have had Asperger’s syndrome. Regardless, his influence on Western moral and political thought—not to mention men’s fashion—is undeniable.